Sidney Lumet's STRIP SEARCH, the HBO Movie Many Didn't See

Jun 9, 2004

The Bottom Line "Strip Search" is a Good, Provocative Political Drama from Sidney Lumet with Fiery Performances from Glenn Close & Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Since the attacks on September 11, 2001, national security has increased to new and extreme heights as paranoia set in among the world. With the recent bombings in Spain, terrorism is still around as more and more people became afraid and suspicious of who is the enemy in their world. Tackling the subject of national security and its extremities for a TV film for HBO is renowned auteur filmmaker Sidney Lumet, whose film credits includes such classics as "12 Angry Men”, “The Verdict”, “Serpico”, “Dog Day Afternoon”, “Running on Empty”, and “Network”. For the 55-minute 2004 film “Strip Search” that was written by “Oz” creator Tom Fontana, the film is a look into the post-9/11 world as suspicion and paranoia set in as two different people in different landscapes are accused of being involved with terrorism. Starring Glenn Close, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Austin Pendleton, and newcomers Bruno Lastra and Ken Leung. “Strip Search” is a compelling, psychological film that really ponders what the world has come to.

The film begins with a history lesson of America’s handling on foreign policy as well as their handling to foreigners. Then it leads to the reports of the 9/11 attacks as a school teacher (Austin Pendleton) asks his students if there was ever a chance to rid of terrorism forever, how long would you give up your rights? There, the film leads to two subplots as it starts of Beijing, China. There, an American graduate student (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has been taken into questioning to a bleak; stonewall basement prison where she’s being interrogated by a Chinese public servant (Ken Leung). At the same time in New York City, a Muslim man (Bruno Lastra) has been taken into questioning by the FBI as he finds himself in a high tech building where he’s is about to be interrogated by an American agent (Glenn Close).

Immediately, both the American student and the Muslim man are asked about their backgrounds as their interrogators look into their passports where they both been to the same places, Cypress, Indonesia, Israel, and Russia. The interrogators asks the people in question about a couple of people they knew as both victims insist, they don’t know who they are. Both are upset that they’re accused of being involved with terrorism or being charged with a crime they haven’t committed yet. The interrogators though, don’t think they’re involved but think they did however, help them accidentally, which still causes problems.

Immediately, the interrogators come to their superiors as the diplomats for the victims’ respective countries know, they couldn’t do anything as they understand the extreme national security the countries are having. There, the interrogators return to the rooms ask they ask their victims to strip down, naked for a full-body cavity search. The people in question remove their clothing as they’re now in this vulnerable situation. They’re asked more and more questions as their girlfriends (the American woman is a lesbian with a Chinese girlfriend) have been asked to testify against them. Now in their vulnerable positions, one of the victims is forced to confess any actions while the other is trying to remain truthful leaving their interrogators and victims in horrible positions for the risk of national security.

For a 55-minute film, “Strip Search” is interesting and compelling since it really brings in a lot of question of national security and foreign policy not just in America but the world as of right now. Fontana’s screenplay has a minimalist tone to the film as the four lead actors each say identical dialogue in the Chinese and American landscapes. Sidney Lumet’s directing style is as masterful as ever since he doesn’t lose consistency with the Chinese and American parts of the film as early on, you begin to know what they’re saying and then, the scenes move back and forth with different settings as it remains even without losing pace until the film’s ending where the guilty is revealed. Even the film’s setting is astonishing from its bleak, stonewall look of the Chinese prison and the light-colored, high-tech look of the American room by production designer Christopher Nowak with cinematographer Ron Fortunato bringing a bleak look to the Chinese scene and a more colorful scene in the American with a dark, orange-colored light in the film’s second half. Composer Paul Chihara fills even the film’s eerie score of Arabian textures and Chinese string music with discomfort, particularly in the film’s final credits.

The film’s major flaw upon its coming release wasn’t just the fact that it’s a 55-minute film but the controversy surrounding it. Though obviously, conservatives will in doubt, be offended by the film’s nudity and subject matter but the subject matter is compelling at what it was trying to say. The world right now is in a state of dissent as the enemy is now unclear than ever. It does bring more questions into not just our own foreign policy but also the world itself since 9/11 as its understandable that the government is in a state of panic over security. Yet, the extreme nature is very uncomforting as during World War II, Japanese-Americans were forced to live in internment camps while Americans themselves in foreign lands have been accused of being involved with matters, threatening one’s country.

Lumet and Fontana aren’t trying to get people to say, this is what’s going on, as some will disagree. It’s really more of what the world has come to. It’s probably the big reason why “Strip Search” had trouble to begin with when production began last summer as HBO ended up releasing the film with no promotion or hype on the film, especially in the light of the 2004 U.S. Elections. The controversy and political arena of the U.S. is the reason why “Strip Search” falls short as a film since there was more that was to be talked about aside from the interrogations scenes as actors like Ellen Barkin, Oliver Platt, Kerry Washington, and Josh Mostel had signed on for the film but never made it to the final cut. In that, “Strip Search” suffers for its reluctance to push forward as it will be overlooked in the months ahead despite Lumet’s directing and Fontana’s script.

The film’s minimalist cast is amazing from its small roles with Austin Pendleton being the most memorable as the teacher in the film’s first scene in an American school. Bruno Lastra is excellent as the Muslim man, accused of being involved with terrorism. Lastra’s performance definitely strays away from whatever stereotype Muslim/Arabs are forced to endure, even know as we know that only few are terrorists. Lastra shows us the plight and prejudice that his people are forced to face as his fiery, intense performance makes us believe that he isn’t or involved with terrorism. Ken Leung is very good as a sympathetic but callous interrogator who isn’t trying to be mean but has a job to do for his country. Leung does bring in some evil moments as he touches a naked Maggie Gyllenhaal in a very lewd way, as he doesn’t try to be unlikable or likeable, but brings in something more complex.

Glenn Close gives a chilling performance, as the American interrogator in a role that makes her “Fatal Attraction” character be a nothing but a child. Close is extremely callous, as she doesn’t touch Lastra or anything inappropriately but with her sniveling look and demeaning performance, Close is the woman you love to hate. Not in the psychotic nature of “Fatal Attraction” but Close does bring in a restraint, minimalist performance that uses words and look as her weapon. Fresh off from Mike Newell’s 2003 film “Mona Lisa Smile”, Maggie Gyllenhaal gives out her most intense performance to date as the American student in China. Already known to fans for her liberal politics, it’s clear why Gyllenhaal chose to do this project as she uses her intellect on many elements of politics in the interrogation scene. Then when she’s come into question and force herself to go full on naked, she reveals a restraint vulnerability and intensity that is enigmatic in its look and tone. In “Strip Search”, Gyllenhaal proves herself, as a risky, dramatic actress whose fearlessness is powerful while her nude scene though is very uncomforting to watch. Gyllenhaal brings in not just a complex and intense performance overall but also one that many of her fans will never forget.

Though “Strip Search” is hardly an essential film from Sidney Lumet, it’s still one of his more compelling efforts in his long-standing film career as a director. Aside from its short length, controversial issue, and lack of promotion, “Strip Search” is one film that must not be ignored for anyone interested in foreign policy. Fans of Glenn Close and Maggie Gyllenhaal, no doubt will get performances essential to their great work while they will also enjoy the performances from newcomers Bruno Lastra and Ken Leung. Overall, despite its shortcomings, “Strip Search” is a compelling, provocative film about freedom and the price we have to pay for our own security.

Maggie Gyllenhaal Film Reviews:

Homegrown (1998):

Patron Saint of Liars (1998):

Cecil B. Demented (2000):

The Photographer (2000):

Riding in Cars with Boys (2001):

Donnie Darko (2001):

40 Days & 40 Nights (2002):

Adaptation (2002):

Secretary (2002):

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002):

Casa de Los Babys (2003):

Mona Lisa Smile (2003):

In the Company of Women (2004):

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